Jurickson Profar first graced the electronic pages of Baseball Prospectus in Kevin Goldstein’s 2011 Top-101 prospect list. He checked in at 78th overall, sandwiched between Jake Odorizzi and one-time teammate Tanner Scheppers. By August of that same year, Jason Parks was listing him neck-and-neck with Manny Machado as the top shortstop prospect in the minors, extolling his five-tool talents and confidence, projecting him as a “first-division starter with All-Star appearances in his future.” We all know Profar’s story from that point on. He slotted in fourth overall by the next year’s list, and was a consensus no. 1 overall prospect on the 2013 iteration.
We also know Profar’s story from that point on: the middling (or worse) debut in 2013; the shoulder injuries; the two years off and the subsequent struggles, with the requisite caveat that we don’t really understand how two years off affects a player. With his recent demotion to Triple-A to get everyday playing time and to re-acquaint himself with the infield dirt, the baseball questions that remain are mostly about efficacy, both in terms of player development and roster maximization.
Profar’s struggles in the majors aren’t exactly unprecedented. Many a prospect has faltered when attempting to find their footing, only to right the ship eventually. But Profar’s elevated status, subsequent failures, and overall skill set call to mind one situation in particular, a situation that might provide a semblance of a path forward.
Brandon Phillips wasn’t always the guy who blocked a trade to Washington, clearing the way for Daniel Murphy to be insanely good and also fix Ryan Zimmerman. He also wasn’t always the guy who yelled at reporters because his on-base percentage stunk, nor was he always the Gold Glove-quality second baseman with a good enough stick to land on three All-Star teams. Before all of that, he was one of the best prospects in baseball, the crown jewel of the deal that sent Bartolo Colon to Montreal for Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Lee Stevens, and Phillips. Baseball America ranked Phillips as the seventh-best prospect entering the 2002 season (a ranking they bestowed upon Profar prior to the 2012 season).
Dat Dude got an extended trial in 2003 for Cleveland, compiling a 48 OPS+ over nearly 400 plate appearances in the process. He managed just 12 games in the majors over the next two years. It wasn’t until a subsequent trade to Cincinnati that Phillips re-emerged on the national scene, fulfilling the lofty promise he had shown in the early aughts. The trade that sent Phillips to Cincinnati was a classic Change of Scenery scenario, with Jeff Stevens (or Steven Jeffs or someone) heading back to Cleveland.
Upon arriving in Cincinnati, Phillips dramatically lowered his strikeout rate, dropping from 19 percent to 15 percent. He also increased his walk rate relative to his one full season by 2.5 percentage points. Along with a more measured approach at the plate, Phillips began to convert his infield fly-ball rate (popups) into line drives and ground balls, while shaving his fly-ball rate slightly. This new mix of batted ball profile suited his ability to run quite well, allowing him to take advantage of the sheer number of balls he put into play. He got better.
Sometimes we need a blank slate, an environment where people err on the side of our positive qualities rather than homing in on the smaller negatives they’ve come to know over the course of years. Sometimes we need a coach who speaks our language (literally or metaphorically), or sometimes we need the realization that we’re the problem more than our circumstance, and thus should listen to the next voice in our ear. Sometimes we need to get the hell out of Northern Ohio. Any one of these is a plausible explanation for why Phillips was able to refine his approach at the plate, allowing his talent to surface in Cincinnati rather than in Cleveland.
My suspicion is that if asked, Phillips himself would provide a narrative along the lines of one of the options mentioned above. But that’s a funny thing about people: when asked to engage in counterfactual thinking—how something might have turned out differently than it did—we tend to imbue the events that took place with additional meaning. In Superforecasting, author Phillip Tetlock discusses an experiment he did with psychologist Laura Kray, wherein the subjects were asked to think of a turning point in their lives. Half of this group were asked to consider how their lives would be now if that point had not occurred. “All participants then judged the degree to which the turning point was a ‘product of fate.’ As expected, those who had contemplated alternative paths in life saw the path taken as meant to be.”
So when we ask Brandon Phillips or any other player who gets traded prior to experiencing a breakout about what unlocked their talent, we’re asking them to engage in counterfactual thinking, and thus, naturally, an emphasis is placed on the fact that they were traded (or cut, or sent to the minors, or what have you) as a crucial part of their success story. We have seen and heard so many of these stories that it can be easy to ascribe this transition as a solution for a struggling player in a similar circumstance.
It’s so simple to look at Jurickson Profar and all his similarities to Brandon Phillips and say: what worked for one might well work for the other—perhaps Profar needs a new voice in his ear, a new backdrop for his success, or a different kind of adversity. But we should also remember that just because Phillips’ story played out the way it did doesn’t mean that it was fated to do so, nor that the trade (or the ensuing changes) was the actual catalyst in finding success. Tetlock goes on to quote economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller saying: “You tend to believe that history played out in a logical sort of sense, that people ought to have foreseen, but it’s not like that. It’s an illusion of hindsight.”
I originally conceived of the idea to write about Profar and Phillips as a means to highlight their similar predicaments and then to suggest that maybe, possibly, Profar could use a change of scenery to jumpstart his once-promising career. But I shouldn’t parade the illusion of hindsight for one individual around like it’s foresight for another.
We know that something worked for Phillips because we saw it unfold before our eyes. We don’t know if that something was the trade, maturing as a person and player, getting more sleep, standing somewhere else in the box, or something else entirely. We don’t know the other ways in which he might have achieved success or experienced failure, so we tend to discount them, when they were just as possible as the events we saw. A probabilistic approach would note that Profar has a great many paths that end in success, either in Texas or elsewhere, on the basis of the core materials at his disposal: talent, work ethic, and so on, and less so due to the background or locational circumstances. There’s every chance that Profar finds success in Arlington.
There’s also every chance that Profar finds failure if he’s dealt. Put another way: I mentioned the Phillips comparison to Jeffrey Paternostro. “Sure,” he said.
“He could also be, like, Gordon Beckham.”